Prepared for publication from remarks made at the 2015 YCT Annual Tribute Dinner in honor of Sharon and Steven Lieberman.
Many people today would be happy to set up camp at the foot of Har Sinai permanently. Just think about what it was like: We had received all the mitzvot; the Mishkan was built; the sacrifices were being offered on a regular basis; and the camp’s boundaries had been delineated, and it was protected. We had all that we needed. Everything was perfect.
Why did God have to come along and ruin everything? We spent half of Shemot and the entirety of Vayikra setting it all up, and then what does God do? God tells us that we are going to have to break down the Mishkan and march forward, disrupting our familiar structures and our stability. Who needs this? Who wants this?
For one, God does: al pi yachanu v’al pi Hashem yisau. The God who tells you to stay put is the God who tells you that you must move forward. The God who gave you all the Torah and the mitzvot, the kedusha, the korbanot, the kohanim, and the Mishkan also tells you that if you stay put, then all these things will have no meaning. Yes, you will be worshipping God at the foot of Har Sinai, but the Torah was not given to remain at Har Sinai. The Torah was given to be brought forward, to enter into the land. By remaining, you will be worshipping God in a vacuum.
I recently saw a biography of the Lubavitcher Rebbe titled, Turning Judaism Outwards. I saw that title and I said, “Yes. Exactly.” That is exactly what Chabad has done and we-the Modern Orthodox community-have so often failed to do. It is true that we are not cloistered. We do not reject the modern world, but what is the nature of our engagement with it? It is one of Torah u’madda, Torah and secular knowledge, and it might be expressed in statements like, “It is a good thing to study secular subjects,” or “One can find value in going to the opera.” In other words, it is a relationship based on determining what one can take from the broader world. This is often reflective of, and can foster, a self-serving, self-oriented ethos. It is about religious growth for the sole purpose of bettering oneself. It is about building religious institutions only to serve the needs of one’s own community.
Yes, we must invest in our own growth. Like Bnei Yisrael, we must spend many months, years even-a third of the Torah-encamped at the foot of Har Sinai, but we cannot let this become an end in itself. If our Torah has no meaning to anyone but ourselves, then we have failed. If our Torah cannot be brought from the base of Har Sinai to the larger world, then we have failed.
We tend to think that the biggest concern during the time in the Wilderness was that the people would say, “Let us make a leader and return to Egypt.” But it was not that. No, the biggest fear was that people would say, “Let us stay put. Let us remain here at Har Sinai.” If people who are moving want to retreat to a place of familiar security, how much more will a people living in security and stability want to preserve their way of life? When we have invested all our effort, all our time and energy, in making everything the way it is and to maintaining that, will we be able to move forward when God commands us?
Moving forward is hard. It requires leaving one’s comfort zone and allowing for the possibility of change. It requires that one embrace creative disruption rather than run from it. To move forward requires knowing al pi Hashem yisau, that it is God’s command that we move forward. It takes knowing that God’s Torah is meant to be brought forth-vayehi binsoa haAron vayomer Moshe-and that when it travels forth, it can truly change the world.
We must be on guard, however, not to embrace change for its own sake. We must know when to remain encamped, fortify our position, and strengthen our inner reserves so that we will be able to move forward when the time comes.”Al pi yisau” must be preceded by “al pi yachanu.” If we observe this carefully, then even when the Mishkan has been dismantled, it will retain its integrity. It will still be the Mishkan, but it will be movable so that it may be rebuilt in a new location, transplanted to spread its kedusha throughout the world.
All of you who support YCT do so because you believe that our future rabbinic leaders need to fully immerse themselves in Torah and mitzvotat the foot of Har Sinai. You believe that they must learn not only Torah and halakha, not only hashkafa and kedusha, but-like the detailed laws for the kohanim-the full wealth of skills needed to properly serve Klal Yisrael. And they know that when the time comes, just as God has told them to encamp God will tell them to travel forth. God will tell them to bring their Torah into the world, to lead our community in building and growing its Torah and its institutions, and to spread its Torah through the world. They will lead us to sustain our religion inwards so that we may succeed in turning our religion outwards. Al pi Hashem yachanu v’al pi Hashem yisau.
Living the Paradox of Shavuot
The holiday of Shavuot commemorates the Giving of the Torah at Har Sinai. The Rabbis paint two opposing pictures in their descriptions of this event. One is of God holding the mountain over the people’s heads and declaring, “Accept this Torah or here will be your burial place.” The other is of Moshe asking the people if they will accept the Torah and the people responding eagerly and freely, “We will do and we will hear.”
While the Torah does not tell of a mountain suspended in midair, it does graphically describe the awe and terror that filled the people upon hearing the Ten Commandments: “Let us no longer hear the word of God,” they said to Moshe. The terror of the encounter not only robbed them of any ability to choose, it actually propelled them away from God. They needed distance in order to regain their humanity.
And while the Torah tells us that the people said “we will do” prior to the giving of the Torah, it is the Rabbis who read the more complete blind-faith declaration, “we will do and we will hear.” In this telling, the people are prepared to keep the Torah regardless of what commandments may be forthcoming. They unquestionably accept and submit to whatever God will ask of them.
The first image starts with commandedness and ends with the need to reestablish one’s autonomy; the second starts with autonomous choice and ends with unquestioning submission to God’s command. Examined together, these images represent what kabbalists refer to as the ratzo va’shov, the running and returning, the push-and-pull of a dynamic religious life.
There are few people who can live this paradox of ratzo va’shov. To do so requires that one maintain a passionate desire to cleave to God, to submit to God and to make oneself a vessel through which God’s will is realized in this world, while possessing an equally religious need to be a self-directed, independent agent, understanding that the best way we can serve God is by bringing the fullness of ourselves to the encounter and to the world.
Different people will find themselves at different points along this spectrum. For those of us who are deeply embedded in the modern world, the stance of autonomy and finding one’s own voice is taken for granted. Accordingly, while we may be fully committed to a life of observance, it is too often just that, a commitment to observance. We make a choice to observe without feeling a sense of chiyuv, of obligation and commandedness. Thus, our religious avodah is to cultivate that experience of being under the mountain, of feeling the power of the divine command. We must say to ourselves not, “I do this because I am an Orthodox Jew” or “because I keep halakha,” but rather, “I do this because I am obligated, because this is what halakha demands of me. This is what God demands of me.”
If we can make this a staple of our religious life, we will be able to live successfully in the ratzo va’shov between unquestioning submission and full autonomy. We will be able to stand beneath the mountain and at the same time freely say, na’aseh v’nishma, we will do and we will hear.